Advocates Call on Michigan Lawmakers to Back Bills Supporting Immigrants

Sergio Martinez of Michigan United speaks during a press conference for immigrant rights at the Michigan Capitol, Apr. 16, 2021. (Michigan Advance/Laina G. Stebbins)

By Michigan Advance

September 1, 2023

BY ANNA GUSTAFSON, MICHIGAN ADVANCE

MICHIGAN—Following Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s “What’s Next” address on Wednesday, advocates praised the Democrat’s call for paid family leave, increasing access to abortion care, boosting election security, and codifying measures in the Affordable Care Act (ACA), among other initiatives – but called on the state’s elected officials to do more to protect immigrants and communities of color.

“We applaud Gov. Whitmer for highlighting important policies that will benefit Michiganders, like transitioning to 100% renewable energy by 2050, lowering prescription drug prices and making Michigan more attractive to workers by passing paid sick leave,” said Sergio Martinez, a board member of the nonprofit Michigan United. “Left unmentioned were urgent pieces of legislation that would protect Michigan’s most vulnerable populations in a time of increasing white nationalism and hate against communities of color.”

Michigan United is a statewide coalition of people from labor, business, social service and civil rights sectors that works to reform the country’s immigration system, protect the environment and end mass incarceration.

Adonis Flores, the organizing director for Michigan United, explained his group hopes to see the governor and Michigan Legislature support the Drive SAFE bills, which were reintroduced in April and would allow Michigan residents to obtain state identification cards or drivers licenses regardless of their immigration status. Additionally, the organization is calling on lawmakers to repeal a law passed by a Republican-led Legislature in 1988 that makes it illegal for local governments to enact rent control. The group is also advocating for what’s known as “good time” credits, which would allow people who are incarcerated to have their sentences reduced for good behavior.

Addressing these would make people of color and immigrants feel far more protected by lawmakers than they currently do, according to Flores.

“There’s an increase in white nationalism in this country, and that’s very scary for communities of color and the immigrant community,” Flores said. “It’s a very scary moment for us, and Black Americans, too. We like what the governor is doing on climate and paid sick time – those are very important, but I think right now, they [the Democrats] have the majority, and they need to protect the most vulnerable communities.”

‘People are unable to travel safely to and from work’

The Drive SAFE package includes House Bills 4410, 4411 and 4412 and Senate Bills 265, 266 and 267. Introduced in April by Democratic sponsors, the bills have yet to receive hearings or votes. State Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit), the lead sponsor of Senate Bill 0267 and co-sponsor of the other two Senate bills, told the Advance on Thursday that “we’re getting very, very close” to being able to move the legislation forward.

“I’m excited about the great momentum there is,” Chang said. “We’ve seen a lot of support from the Farm Bureau, which is actively advocating on this issue, the Catholic Conference, a number of faith organizations, business leaders who are starting to come on board, labor organizations, and many immigrant rights groups that believe this is such an important issue. We’re continuing to build the support necessary to get it done. It’s definitely a top priority. We know folks are counting on us to get it done.”

When the Advance asked Thursday if the governor supports the Drive SAFE legislation, the 1988 law repeal or the good time credits, Whitmer’s office did not give a direct answer.

“With Governor Whitmer’s leadership and a Democratic majority, this legislative term has been one of the most productive in state history, but we know that there’s still more work to do,” press secretary Stacey LaRouche wrote in a statement prepared for the Advance. “That’s why the governor delivered her ‘What’s Next’ address and outlined policy priorities that will build on our work to lower costs, make Michigan more competitive, improve energy efficiency, expand opportunity, and protect people’s fundamental rights. Governor Whitmer looks forward to bringing the legislature together to put Michigan families first and improve people’s lives.”

Loida Tapia, the political director at Mi Poder, a political advocacy organization that’s focused on engaging Michigan’s Latino community in the democratic process, said it’s crucial for lawmakers to pass the Drive SAFE bills.

Prior to 2008, Michigan residents were able to access state identification regardless of immigration status; the Drive SAFE legislation would once again make that legal. That, Tapia and Flores explained, would allow people to safely drive to and from work, transport their children to school and go to the grocery store or run other errands without worrying that a traffic stop could lead to deportation and their families being separated.

“People are unable to travel safely to and from work, to and from school; this is an issue we want to see addressed, especially when we have momentum,” said Tapia, whose organization is based in Detroit and works in communities across Michigan. “It’s disappointing this has not been prioritized in a way that makes us feel supported as a community.”

The legislation would allow individuals who can prove residency in Michigan but are unable to produce records verifying citizenship to access driver licenses and state identification cards. That includes individuals, supporters of the legislation explained, who are legally residing in Michigan but do not have physical documentation in their possession due to federal bureaucracy and immigration paperwork backlogs that have significantly intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic. The identification would not permit someone to vote or cross state or international borders.

Both Tapia and Flores said the lack of movement on the Drive SAFE bills has left immigrant communities to feel abandoned by both Republican and Democratic lawmakers and said it could result in immigrant voters not going to the polls – or elected officials being challenged in the primary.

While the Republican-led state House scheduled a hearing on previously introduced Drive SAFE legislation in 2021, GOP leadership abruptly canceled it and never rescheduled the hearing.

“Not seeing them take action is definitely going to impact voter turnout,” Tapia said of the Democratic majority that has controlled the Michigan House and Senate since January. “ … Are communities going to be willing to support Democratic leadership? Will Democrats be challenged within their very safe home districts by candidates who are willing to take on these issues?”

We the People Action Fund, a statewide organization based in Detroit that has been advocating for the Drive SAFE legislation, also backed the legislation becoming law.

“We are heartened to see Governor Whitmer stand for many issues that our communities have fought for, including paid family leave, reproductive justice, and steps toward a clean energy future,” the group said in a statement prepared for the Advance. “At the same time, after working tirelessly to elect pro-immigrant legislators across the state, the immigrant community is disappointed at the exclusion of the widely supported Drive SAFE bills from Governor Whitmer’s priorities for this fall. During their historic first year in power in 40 years, we are eager to see Democrats pass their first piece of legislation supporting immigrants.”

Like Chang, state Rep. Rachel Hood (D-Grand Rapids), another sponsor of the Drive SAFE legislation, said Democratic lawmakers are determined to pass these bills and are likely on the cusp of garnering some Republican support for them.

“We’re very anxious to get these bills done as soon as possible,” Hood said in an interview with the Advance on Thursday.

While working on this issue, Hood noted that she has heard horrific stories regarding the fallout from people not being able to access identification.

“I heard from a We the People activist who lost her nephew in a hit-and-run a couple days before I met with her,” Hood said. “It’s suspected because the individual who was hit, and was on the side of the road, did not have identification, no one called to get help for him, and he died on the side of the road.”

Hood shared another story of a family who was driving on “slick Michigan winter roads during the holiday season.” An individual who “was driving too close to them and profiled them as immigrants” hit their car in West Michigan and proceeded to “extort $2,000 from this family with threats that he would call police if they didn’t give him cas to fix his vehicle right then and there.”

It’s stories like these that have led to law enforcement, including the Kent County Sheriff’s office, to support the legislation, Hood said.

“This is a public safety issue, this is a jobs and economy issue, and it’s a dignity and quality of life issue for many of the people keeping our economy running in Michigan,” Hood said and added that the state’s “strong economic performance is dependent on new Americans.”

Housing costs and prison sentences

In addition to the Drive SAFE legislation, Michigan United also urged elected officials to address increasing rent prices by repealing the law passed by a Republican-led Legislature in 1988 that makes it illegal for local governments to enact rent control.

“One of the biggest concerns people have is the cost of housing,” Flores said. He added that following the subprime mortgage crisis that began in 2007, “a lot of people lost their homes. Banks repossessed these homes, and they’ve been selling them to corporations that now have a monopoly on rental properties. They can charge outrageous amounts for rent that are just inaccessible to the majority.”

Flores specified that Michigan United is not calling for legislation that would enact statewide rent control but rather that would repeal what’s known as the preemption law that passed in 1988 and banned local government from enacting any kind of rent control.

“The needs are different in each municipality,” Flores said. “It’s not the same in Grand Rapids as it is in Detroit or Traverse City or Marquette. We just need to give local governments more bandwidth to make the quality of life better for their citizens.”

Chang said Democratic lawmakers are working on legislation that would address the preemption law, and further details are forthcoming.

Michigan United is also advocating for what’s known as “good time” credits, which would allow people who are incarcerated to have their sentences reduced for good behavior. Democratic lawmakers have over the years introduced legislation to reenact the good time credits in Michigan, including Rep. Tyrone Carter (D-Detroit) this year. Faced with opposition from Democratic leaders such as Attorney General Dana Nessel, advocates have turned to a ballot proposal in lieu of legislation. Michigan Justice Advocacy, a nonprofit, is now collecting signatures to get a proposal for the good time credits on the ballot in November 2024.

“We know that there’s a lot of people who were caught up in the war against drugs in the 80s and 90s who were incarcerated and have reformed their lives,” Flores said. “We don’t have to waste our tax dollars keeping them in jail. Good time allows the courts and parole boards to use their judgment and allow people who are reformed to get shorter sentences so they can come out and be productive members of society. A lot of these people are people of color.”

Flores shared Tapia’s sentiment that a lack of movement on these issues has left people, particularly immigrants and people of color, feeling discouraged.

“They’re hoping for these changes; they’re waiting for these changes,” Flores said. “People are losing hope. People who work with our communities of color are the ones losing the most hope, for both parties. Both parties are ignoring our needs; that discourages people of color from turning out to the polls.”

This coverage was republished from Michigan Advance pursuant to a Creative Commons license. 

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